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Reintroducing Initiation to consolidate a Reconciled Australia

September 14, 2009

The 13 February 2008- National Sorry Day- will become a significant moment in Australian history-of magnitude equal in importance to the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo Judgement by the Hight Court. The Apology asks both indigenous and immigrant Australia to collaborate to  create ‘a future based on mutual respect , mutual resolve and mutual responsibility’ . The next task is to devise original programs which help to enable indigenous Australians to successfully take their place in 21st Century Australian society while simultaneously respecting  and celebrating  their unique cultural heritage.  To emphasise the use of means which promote mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility it would be best if new programs were devised  which could be  implemented in both indigenous and immigrant communities,  but be customised to meet the different needs of each of  these two communities

Therefore these programs should simultaneously both close the gap in terms of life expectancy , and educational and economic opportunity in indigenous communities but also encourage immigrant Australians  to support these programs in indigenous with more open hearts, and deal with similar problems where they exist in immigrant communities. Just As all Australians should recognise the each individual and community of has an obligation to minimize or even abolish its carbon footprint  to create a future which is not threatened by climate change, all of us should  contribute in our own and different  ways to realise a future reconciled Australia  where indigenous and immigrant Australians can live side by side with equal prospects for achieving success in the new conditions of  21st century Australia. If programs are only implanted in indigenous communities these programs will always be regarded as marginal by mainstream Australia.

Top of the list should be a program which prepares youth for successful 21st century adulthood.  This after all is the main purpose of both parenthood and education . However if we look at the state of youth,  failure is everywhere- in indigenous and immigrant communities alike.

Traditional societies everywhere including  use a process  called  initiation to prepare youth on the threshold of adulthood to become successful and responsible adults. Initiation traditionally accomplished two outcomes : it reaffirmed the core culture of each culture – to give people a sense of belonging to a larger group , and it taught the young how to be successful in the world they would be inheriting as adults. Initiation served brilliantly in helping to create successful responsible indigenous adulthood over 40,000 years.  Every traditional society that I know has used initiation  for this purpose , but in the last hundred years it has been jettisoned – and at significant cost to youth welfare. . The advocacy of the renewal of initiation is not new and has been made has been made by several writers, including Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly and Steve Biddulph. With appropriate reinvention to meet the new circumstances of the 21st century initiation can do so again.

Michael Ventura in his essay The Age of Endarkment described traditional initiation thus:

Tribal people everywhere greet the onset of puberty, especially in males, with elaborate and excruciating initiations, a practice, which would not be as necessary unless their young were as extreme as ours were.

They would assault their adolescents with, quite literally, holy terror, rituals that had been kept secret from the young until that moment, rituals that focussed upon the young all the light and darkness of their tribe’s collective psyche, all its sense of mystery, all its questions and all the stories told both to harbour and answer these questions…The crucial word is focus. The adults had something to teach: stories, skills, magic, dances, visions, rituals. In fact, if all these things were not learned well and completely, the tribe could not survive…This practice was so effective that usually by the age of 15 a tribal youth was able to take his or her place as a fully responsible adult.

The time is right to go back to the future to retrieve and then update a process which should never been allowed to disappear.   We should introduce a universal program for both indigenous and immigrant Australians alike, to implement a program in the middle years of secondary school  to reintroduce a 21st century version of traditional initiation , appropriately customised for the different needs of indigenous and immigrant Australia and to promote  mutual respect, resolve and responsibility.

I have talked with indigenous leaders and they tell me that many of the problems of dysfunctional communities and behaviours are present because their young have not been initiated. In similar discussions indigenous youth tell me that initiation belongs to the past and has no relevance to their world as they see it.  Now both these perspectives are correct. Initiation in its old form will not work, but if it were updated and modified for new 21st century circumstances there is a good chance that it could work as brilliantly as it has in the past.

No community,  indigenous or immigrant ,  is as successful as it could be in preparing our youth for successful responsible 21st Century adulthood.  Indigenous youth is clearly endangered from alcoholism, petrol sniffing , they perpetrate violence against  their own and children , and commit suicide in much too high numbers. The problems of immigrant youth can be remarkably similar even though the communities of which they are part are usually much more functional. That said immigrant youth is involved in  excessive and dangerous drug use,   drug engendered robberies ,  intra-youth knife violence, drug spiked rapes,  binge drinking, youth suicide, and violence against women and children: these issues are and testaments that similar problems exist in mainstream Australians occur in indigenous communities.  Therefore immigrant youth would benefit from a reinvention and reintroduction of initiation into youth during the years of puberty as well.

Imagine an old wine skin called initiation and then imagine the new wine which should be poured into that wine skin to ensure that through initiation, successful responsible indigenous adults are developed who are aware and proud of their cultural identity while they also possess the key skills needed to be a success 21st century adult.  What would be the ingredient of such a curriculum ?  Indigenous leaders themselves could be asked to answer this question and others concerned in imparting the requisite skill set should add their contributions. And initiation should be introduced across the whole of Australian society. Imagine a process lasting (say) one year in the middle secondary school – probably year 9-  which would be undertaken by all Australian secondary students, indigenous and immigrant alike.  Some of these programs would be appropriately customised to emphasise the importance of identity and culture for indigenous people , and other cultural and religious groups, and also be customised for gender related issues . The remainder would be common to all, and include what it takes to become a successful and responsible  adult in mainstream  21st century Australia in an interdependent global society.
There are already several programs which are promising starts, including an outstanding one in South Australian schools (www.theritejourney.com) and successful components exist in the new leadership programs at Melbourne Grammar and Lauriston, at Caulfield Grammar and Geelong Grammar – and in state schools at The Alpine School –all of which are directed at the middle years of secondary school –the years of puberty.

We should vacate the entire curriculum of year 9 in all our schools and introduce initiation- a year long program for preparing for successful responsible adulthood- as a national priority.  Any secondary school teacher will tell you that year 9, as it is currently constructed, is failing. Young people at puberty are less interested in mathematics and history, but they absolutely want to learn how to become successful in the adult world they are just about to inherit . We should let biology rule and grant the young people of Australia, indigenous and non indigenous alike, their wish.

An excellent Program which is being developed on these lines is The Rite Journey (ww.theritejourney.com)

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